Moral Development

General assumption is that person's values are formed during childhood and do not change after. In fact, a great deal of psychological research, as well as one's own personal experience, has shown that as people mature, they change their values in very deep and thoughtful ways. Along with people's physical, emotional, and cognitive abilities moral issues develops with their age.

Similar to the identifiable stages of growth in the physical development, ability to make moral judgements also develops in identifiable stages. During childhood, we are advised about right and wrong, and we are bound to obey to avoid punishment. The child's adherence to moral standards is essentially self-absorbed for the avoidance of pain. As we grow up into youth, these conventional moral standards are gradually supressed. Sticking to moral standards is based on living up to the expectation of family, friends, and the surrounding society. We do what is right because it is what our groups expect of us. It is only as rational and experienced adults that we acquire the capacity to critically reflect on the conventional moral standards given to us by our families, peers, culture, or religion. We then begin to sensibly evaluate these moral standards and their consequences and to revise them where they are insufficient, unreliable or irrational. We begin, in short, to do ethics, and our morality now increasingly consists of moral standards that are more impartial and that take into account more of the interests of others, or that more adequately balance taking care of others with taking care of ourselves.

Research related to Psychology

Lawrence Kohlberg concluded on the basis of over 20 years of research that there is a sequence of six identifiable stages in the development of a person's ability to deal with moral issues. Kohlberg's theory is useful because it helps us understand how our moral capacities develop and reveals how we can become increasingly sophisticated and critical in our use and understanding of the moral standards we hold.

Research has shown that, although people generally progress through the stages in the same sequence, not everyone progresses through all the stages. Kohlberg found that many people remain stuck at one of the early stages throughout their lives. For those who remain at the pre-conventional level, right and wrong always continue to be defined in the egocentric terms of avoiding punishment and doing what powerful authority figures say.

For those who reach the conventional level but never get any further, right and wrong continue to define in terms of conventional norms of their social groups or the laws of their nation or society.

For those who reach the post conventional level and take a reflective and critical look at the moral standards they have been raised to hold, moral right or wrong are decided in terms of moral principles they have chosen for themselves as more reasonable and adequate.

Kohlberg viewpoint

Kohlberg suggested that the moral reasoning of people at the later stages of moral development is better than the reasoning of those at earlier stages.

First, people at the later stages have the ability to see things from a wider and fuller perspective than those at earlier stages. The person at the preconventional level can see situations only from the person's own egocentric point of view; the person at the conventional level can see situations only from the familiar viewpoints of people in the person's own social groups; and the person at the post-conventional point of view has the ability to look at situations from a perspective that tries to take into account everyone affected by the decision.

Second, people at the later stages have better ways of justifying their decisions to others than those at earlier stages. The person at the preconventional level can justify decisions only in terms of how the person's own interests will be affected, and therefore justifications are ultimately persuasive only to the person. The person at the conventional level can justify decisions in terms of the norms of the group to which the person belongs, and therefore justifications are ultimately persuasive only to members of the person's group. Finally, the person at the post conventional level can justify what the person does on the basis of moral principles that are impartial and reasonable and that can therefore appeal to any reasonable person.


Kohlberg's theory has, been subjected to a number of criticisms. First, Kohlberg has been criticised for claiming that the higher stages are morally preferable to the lower stages. This criticism is surely right. Although the higher Kohlberg levels incorporate broader perspectives and widely acceptable justifications, it does not follow that these perspectives are morally better than the lower ones. To establish that the higher stages are morally better will require more argument than Kohlberg provides. In later units, we shall see what kind of reasons can be given for the view that the perspectives and justifications of the moral principles characteristic of the later Kohlberg stages are morally preferable to those of the earlier stages.

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